- Paul Rosenberg
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
Thirty years ago, Dana Rohrabacher ran for Congress as an outsider pledged to terms limits. An outsider who’d been a Reagan White House speechwriter for eight years. Honest messaging has never been his thing. For example: In April 2001, he tried to negotiate a secret peace deal with the Taliban (contents still unknown), then after 9/11, he attacked the Bill Clinton administration, saying it had ignored his pleas not to negotiate with the Taliban.
But this year, voters may finally make an honest man of him, and limit his term by voting him out.
If voters do correct his record after all these years, it won’t just be the end of an error, but the end of a whole package of errors.
OC Weekly’s Matt Corker summarized in what he described to Random Lengths News as “a sort of Dana’s greatest hits I compiled,” up through May 2017. It was titled A Dana Rohrabacher Reader: 21 Years of Articles on OC’s Grossest, Whiniest Congress-Loser, which drew on more than 700 stories OC Weekly had run over the years. They ranged from the simply silly (the role of dinosaur farts in global warming) to the deeply sinister (organizing and consorting with terrorists), with a volume and variety that is simply overwhelming.
“I’ve tried to keep up since then with the weekly Dana Watch column,” Corker said, “But it’s been coming so fast and frequently lately that it’s been difficult to chronicle it all.”
Rather than try to encompass all the weird variety of things Rohrabacher has done, we’re going to focus on a subset of four categories of error he’s been involved with: ties with Afghanistan terrorists from the 1980s onward, broader ties with international terrorists, criminal and unethical associations, and ties to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As we’ll see, there are strong connections tying them all together: Afghanistan is just one of several different places where Rohrabacher helped support terrorist groups, as part of a network of activists which included Jack Abramoff, later imprisoned at the center of the most far-reaching lobbying scandal in recent congressional history. And questionable characters lurk all around his multiple Russia connections. Behind all these errors is Rohrabacher’s polarizing hot-head mindset, so focused on fighting ill-defined enemies that he’s blind to the glaring flaws of his friends, his allies, himself. The possibility that demon-hunting itself is the problem never enters his mind.
There’s also a deeper error that made all this possible: how Orange County’s past as national seedbed of the demon-hunting right was based on deep denial of how profoundly dependent it was on federal government spending. Don’t expect that error to end anytime soon. But if Rohrabacher does lose in November, it will at least have loosened its grip on its modern birthplace.
Rohrabacher’s Ties to 9/11 Terrorists
“Rohrabacher is unapologetic about his interest in foreign affairs, particularly his involvement in Afghanistan, which dates from his years in the Reagan administration,” The Daily Breeze wrote in 2003.
“A stable Afghanistan is a prerequisite for a stable central Asia. You have a huge chunk of the world that pivots around Afghanistan,’’ Rohrabacher told The Daily Breeze.
But a stable Afghanistan is the last thing you’d expect from the actual record of his long involvement there.
The immediate aftermath of 9/11 saw astounding bipartisanship — except for Dana Rohrabacher, as the OC Weekly recalled a year later.
“Members of a special House Intelligence subcommittee on international terrorism evacuated the U.S. Capitol and, in hopes of calming public anxiety, called an emergency press conference,” the OC Weekly wrote.
Leaders of from both parties presenting a united front, until Rohrabacher — who wasn’t a subcommittee member — demanded to speak: “Let me just tell you, this is not just a day of infamy; this is a tragedy,” he said. “It’s a day of disgrace.”
He excoriating the intelligence community: “Where’s the FBI? Where’s the CIA?” he asked how they would explain their “catastrophic incompetence.
“I’ve been begging people to do something about Afghanistan,” he said. “And, I said, if we didn’t do anything about the Taliban, we would pay a dear price.”
But the reality was exactly the opposite, as Rohrabacher’s 2002 opponent, long-time Long Beach then-Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske, tried in vain to expose, with little party support and a virtual media blackout. In reality, Rohrabacher himself had been privately negotiating with the Taliban as late as May 2001. And, he had a long history of involvement there before that. He was involved in helping to organize and arm the Mujahideen while working in the Ronald Reagan White House in the 1980s. The total price tag was $3 billion. The policy was not to aid leaders or factions with most popular support — if, as advertised, the goal was to promote democracy — but rather the most hardline extremists, who would never stop fighting. When the Soviets left in 1989 — they didn’t.
The Taliban eventually emerged as the most dominant faction, establishing a government in 1996.
At the time, Rohrabacher defended them against almost universal condemnation (only three countries recognized its government) in an interview reported in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs:
The potential rise to power of the Taliban does not alarm Rohrabacher, because the Taliban could provide stability in an area where chaos was creating a real threat to the U.S….
Rohrabacher calls the sensational media reporting of the “harsh” imposition of strict Islamic behavior, with the underlying implication that this somehow threatens the West, “nonsense.” He says the Taliban are devout traditionalists, not terrorists or revolutionaries, and, in contrast to the Iranians, they do not seem intent on exporting their beliefs….
Five years later, he was still at it.
“Rohrabacher traveled to Qatar and conducted secret, unauthorized negotiations with Osama Bin Laden’s protégé, Taliban Foreign Minister Walid Ahmad Mutawakel in April 2001,” Schipske said in an August 2002 press release.
The note went on to state that, “The Arab news media reports that Rohrabacher pressured the Government of Qatar to set up a private meeting between him and the Taliban’s Foreign Minister…. Rohrabacher met with Mutawakel and gave him a document that outlined his own ‘personal peace plan’ and told Mutawakel to take it back to the Taliban…. It is simply outrageous that this rogue Congressman engaged in negotiations with the Taliban. He needs to explain why he tried to cut a deal on his own and what he promised the Taliban during the meeting.”
Schipske urged Rohrabacher to release whatever documents he handed to the Taliban leader.
There was no major media follow-up, but Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo did some digging of his own.
“The story is actually true,” he reported:
In April 2001, Rohrabacher travelled to Doha, Qatar to attend a conference on “Free Markets and Democracy.” While there, he met with a Taliban delegation led by Muttawakil. Al Jazeera reported that the two discussed Osama bin Laden, the situation of women and civil liberties. Rohrabacher told Agence France Presse that the conversation was “frank and open.” And he told the Associated Press that Muttawakil’s response to his plan was “thoughtful and inquisitive.”….
It turns out there’s more. The Muttawakil meeting was attended by several members of the United States Congress, according to Associated Press and Agence France Presse reports. Who those other members of Congress were is not clear. They don’t seem to be jumping forward. Who are they? I’d like to know.
All this was happening as the CIA was trying to convince the George W. Bush administration to launch a covert military campaign in Afghanistan to end the Al Qaeda threat, according to a 2015 Politico report:
By May of 2001, said Cofer Black, then chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, “It was very evident that we were going to be struck, we were gonna be struck hard and lots of Americans were going to die.
That’s where the CIA was, to answer Rohrabacher’s question on 9/11. They had a far more realistic picture of what was happening in Afghanistan than he ever dreamed of.
Rohrabacher’s Wider Terrorist Ties
Afghanistan was just one of several sites on three continents where Rohrabacher worked with a network of activists in the 1980s to support terrorists fighting Soviet influence. These included several eventually high-profile figures: Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff and Oliver North among them.
“Back in the eighties Norquist and Rohrabacher used to be known for what you might call extreme activism, basically heading out to remote spots in the Third World, mainly in Africa, and hooking up with various right-wing militias,” Marshall wrote, noting that Norquist was also in Doha at the same time as Rohrabacher met with the Taliban.
But they didn’t just “hook up,” and there was a whole network of others involved as well, including Jack Abramoff, whose lobbying scandal helped set the stage for the Democrats retaking the House of Representatives in 2006, after he pled guilty to influence peddling and was sentenced to six years in federal prison.
As Corker explained in 2005, it all started with a 1983 conversation between Rohrabacher and another Youth for Reagan buddy Jack Wheeler, who “mentioned that ‘a spontaneous outbreak of revolts in the Soviet colonies’ was in progress and that nobody had grasped its potential. Properly nurtured, he told Rohrabacher, such revolts could destroy the evil empire’s “very core.”
Rohrabacher jumped on the idea, and helped lay the groundwork which lead to a series of meetings in with Reagan officials in which the term “freedom fighters” was born. A couple of wealthy GOP donors formed an organization, Citizens for America, which, among other things, employed Jack Abramoff and organized a 1985 meeting in Angola “to organize international terrorists from four countries”: Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Laos.
The White House point man on the deal was none other than Dana Rohrabacher, with heavy lifting from two young Republicans and future powerful lobbyists: Grover Norquist and Jack Abramoff. (The Angolan terrorist leader, Jonas Savimbi, signed a $600,000 contract with Paul Manafort’s lobbying firm that same year, an intriguing precursor to their later shared alignment with Putin.)
“The [Citizens For America], leaning on such wealthy right-wingers as Joseph Coors and Ivan Boesky, would go on to steer millions in U.S. taxpayer funds to terrorists in Angola and apply force to Congress to support the contras,” Corker subsequently noted.
The Nicaraguan contras, of course, lead to another major scandal. When Congress cut off funding, the Reagan administration engineered arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, which were exposed in 1986. Oliver North, who played a lead role in coordinating things, went on to be Rohrabacher’s most prominent supporter when he first ran for Congress in 1988. So he first entered Congress with the blood of innocent civilians on three continents on his hands — all in the name of “freedom.”
Rohrabacher’s Crime Friends And Family
Abramoff is a prime example of a host of shady characters Rohrabacher has known—and even married.
In January, 2017, Coker wrote about the more select group of those who’d actually been convicted. First up was Rhonda Carmony Rohrabacher. In 1995, she was Rohrabacher’s campaign manager when she helped recruit a decoy candidate to split the Democratic vote, so that Scott Baugh, a Rohrabacher protégé, could get elected to the California Assembly. (More recently Baugh turned against Rohrabacher, and challenged him, unsuccessfully, in this year’s primary.) Charged with two felonies — conspiracy and fraudulently filing and making nomination papers — Carmony escaped conviction with hung jury, but pleaded guilty rather than face retrial, and had those felonies reduced to misdemeanors, with just three years probation, 300 hours of community service and a $2,800 fine. By that time, she and Rohrabacher had married.
Abramoff was second on Coker’s list. As he had reported a decade earlier, lawmakers allowed to dine for free at Abramoff’s high-end restaurant, Signatures, were designated “FOO Comp,” Friend Of Owner, and Rohrabacher was one of them. These fell under the friendship exemption in House rules, he argued.
“Just because you are a member of Congress doesn’t mean you have to give up your friendships,” he told the New York Times. “It was dinner with a friend and I didn’t think of it as a gift.”
Both men seemed to have a similarly “fluid” sense of right and wrong. Interestingly, Coker noted:
Despite coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, major dailies in Texas, wire services around the country and all over the world wide web, a recent database search turned up zero-zippo-nada hits for Register or LA Times stories that mention Rohrabacher and Abramoff in the same article.
So their decades-long friendship never caused Rohrabacher an ounce of political pain in his district.
The most prominent others included:
- Rohrabacher aide Jeffrey Ray Nielsen, who pleaded guilty to child molestation of middle school boys in March 2008.
- Orange County sheriff Mike Carona (who Rohrabacher staunchly supported when he was under attack), who pleaded guilty to felony witness tampering in 2013.
- Joseph Medawar (who paid Rohrabacher $23,000 for a 30-year-old screenplay), who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and income tax evasion in 2006, and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison and ordered to pay $2.6 million in restitution, and to perform 3,000 hours of community service.
What these show, collectively, is a rather lax attitude with regard to the law—to put it mildly. If you’re a friend or an ally, whatever you do is just fine. Rohrabacher is not going to question you very hard, if at all. Another criminal on Coker’s list embezzled a small fortune while working for him. And when Abramoff was convicted, Rohrabacher called him, “a good person who’s done bad things and has to be punished for doing bad things,” but that was the worst he ever said. “Jack is a very idealistic person and I will say he’s a patriot,” he told Politico in 2015, and Abramoff reciprocated. “Dana remains a friend, as he has been for years,” he said.
Rohrabacher and Russia
As lore would have it, Rohrabacher’s current friendliness toward Russia dates at least back to the mid-1990s, when he welcomed a visiting group of young Russian political leaders, which included Putin, who then worked for the mayor of St. Petersburg. Putin and Rohrabacher ended up arm-wrestling in a pub, “And he beat me just like that,” Rohrabacher told the AP, on one occasion.
In 2012, the FBI warned him that Russia considered him an intelligence source worthy of a Kremlin code name. But it’s only since then that his pro-Russian actions—defending their annexation of Crimea, objecting to sanctions, meeting with a widening circle of Putin agents and allies etc. — have drawn serious attention. His push-back line is simple, the AP reported, “Instead of fighting another Cold War, Russia and the United States should focus on defeating Islamic extremism.” It went on to quote John E. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
“He has been a consistent voice in Congress for weak policies towards an aggressive Kremlin,” Herbst told them. “I have no reason to question his integrity; I have lots of reason to question his judgment.”
It’s a plausible view, given how badly distorted Rohrabacher’s judgment has been over the years. But even his fellow Republicans in Congress have their doubts. “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in a 2016 conversation, which he labelled “a joke” after it leaked. However, the conversation occurred after a meeting with the Ukrainian prime minister discussing Kremlin’s efforts to finance politicians opposing democracies in Eastern Europe — the same sorts of people Paul Manafort has represented. Both men liked Savimbi back in 1985, both like Putin today. Their motivations may have differed: Money was certainly foremost in Manafort’s mind, while Rohrabacher seems more driven by sharing a common enemy.
Indeed, this could be the simplest explanation for a large number of his errors over the years. Much like Trump, Rohrabacher seems to think first about who’s against him. With that in mind, he’ll grab onto anyone as an ally—though it must be said, the more rabid, the better. Such was the thinking behind backing the Mujahadeen, as well as all the other terrorists groups he supported. The idea that it might someday come back to bite us simply never seems to have occurred to him.
The Error of Enmity?
Being blinded by enmity isn’t just Rohrabacher’s problem, however. In her 2001 book, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, Harvard historian Lisa McGirr described Orange County as a microcosm of the historical transformations that took conservative activism from the conspiracy-obsessed fringes of the John Birch Society to the election of Ronald Reagan, first as governor of California and then as president. Reviewing it for Publishers Weekly, I wrote:
McGirr paints a complex picture exploring the apparent contradiction of powerfully anti-modern social, political and religious philosophies thriving in a modern, technological environment and translating into sustained political activity.
Federal spending, beginning in WWII and continuing with massive Cold War defense contracts and military bases, was the driving force behind Orange County’s booming economy. A frontier-era mythos of rugged individualism, nurtured on hatred of eastern elites who funded western growth before Uncle Sam conveniently hid this dependency. The local dominance of unfettered private development chaotically disorganized in the county’s northwest, corporately planned elsewhere [particularly Irvine] destroyed existing communities, producing an impoverished public sphere, a vacuum conservative churches and political activism helped fill. Migrants primarily from nonindustrial regions became more conservative in reaction to the stresses of suburban modernity, while selectively assimilating benefits. Racial and class homogeneity nurtured a comforting conformity consciously defended against outside threats.
United by enemies, libertarian and social conservatives rarely confronted their differences. Against this complex, contradictory background, McGirr charts the evolution of a movement culture through various stages, issues and forms of organizing. Incisive yet fair, this represents an important landmark in advancing a nuanced understanding of how anti-modernist ideologies continue to thrive.
This describes the same sort of tunnel vision Rohrabacher exhibits, blurring everything except for the enemies it’s focused on — enemies which could be, in the end, little more than a Jungian shadow projection of rejected aspects of the subject’s self.